Saturday, July 10, 2010

Glimmer Train Stories 70 (Spring 2009)

Glimmer Train Stories 70, Spring 2009


Glimmer Train webite.

Not just a publisher of literary works, Glimmer Train Press, the flagship that is responsible for the elegant quarterly Glimmer Train Stories, is an industry. Based in Portland, Oregon, the journal was launched in 1990 by sisters Linda B. Swanson-Davies and Susan Burmeister-Brown, a duo that made enough of a fortune in the software industry to leave work and begin their literary venture. With the success of Glimmer Train Stories they began a second quarterly, a journal on writing titled Writer's Ask. The venture has been a great success though the journal itself garners mixed reviews: while it pays its writers generously, frequently publishes first-time or developing authors and is a very high quality and physically attractive publication, it regularly promotes generic, bland writing. Glimmer Train Stories prefers internal philosophizing with a backdrop of some medical tragedy or alarming event. Narrators must make some kind of realization, and life goes on.

The journal's structure and operation is incredibly consistent and well organized. They solicit work not only from the general public, but they also offer different contests at predetermined times of the year, from a general Fiction Open contest to one for new writers, a "Very Short Fiction Award" and something called Family Matters, which seek stories dealing with family. Each of these contests requires a reading fee of $15, or $20 for the Fiction Open. Seeing as contest entries number in the hundreds, these proceeds likely help the editors/publishers in offering such high cash prizes to the contest winners and two runners-up. The Fiction Open award is valued at $2,000, plus publication and twenty copies of the issue their story will be featured in. Rather generous and appealing for established and new writers. I am personally not opposed to reading fees for contests since it is a lot of work and external readers are often hired to help with the submission load (though according to their site the two editors read everything themselves--all 40,000 submissions), and twenty bucks is a good investment toward a literary journal.

Among Glimmer Train's best feature is its website. An attractive, user-friendly site that is as well organized as the rest of the publication. So well designed that it is not difficult to believe that the two ladies behind Glimmer Train worked in the software industry.

I am unaware of the journal's early format, or even if they have gone through many changes (though I've searched for back issues in different second hand shops I know), but the current format seems not to have changed much over the last number of years. The journal features stories of varying length (they are open to publishing those awkwardly longer pieces that often have difficulty finding a home), an author interview, brief article and photographs of the editors and their contributors: childhood photos face each story's opening page, while other family-oriented photos grace the last few pages, a section under the heading "The Last Pages." Each of these photos contains a caption, and some of these cations by the authors themselves are more entertaining than their actual stories.

I subscribe regularly to different journals mostly in order to help them out; it is unfortunate that many of these periodicals, some quite excellent, are not more widely read. In 2009 I decided to subscribe for a year to see what Glimmer Train was all about, and with high expectations plunged myself into the first gorgeous glossy issue I received, Glimmer Train 70 (Spring 2009).

This particular issue features eight short stories, an author interview and a brief essay, and I was immediately impressed with the first story, Stephanie Dickinson's "A Hole in the Soup." The story deals with a young woman trapped in a hospital in New Orleans immediately following the flood. Not only does the story have a spectacular title, but the prose is solid and the situation more than gripping. Not just the strongest piece in the issue, Dickinson also provides the best entry among "The Last Pages," with a great photo of her dad and a genuinely touching caption. "A Hole in the Soup" proved to be by far the strongest piece in the issue, and really only one of two worth reading. The second is the following piece, Lauren Groff's "Delicate Edible Birds." It is a good story but drags a little at times and the protagonist can be somewhat uninteresting; it nonetheless has some strong moments and is well written.

The rest of the stories are forgettable.

There is a first-time published writer here, Joshua Canipe, whose "Preacher Stories" is dry, the prose generic and the characters uninvolved. Canipe's caption for his photo is the best in the collection among childhood photos; unfortunately someone screwed up and the photo that was supposed to appear with his caption in "The Last Pages" was omitted. Ed Allen's "Krakenhaus" is familiar and too self-involved. Mirian Novogrodsky's "Just Enough Food to Remember" is one of the two weakest of the bunch, as it tries to structure itself around a series of oddly-titled vignettes, a trope that is more irritating than neat, and does little more than distract from (yet another) self-involved piece. Scott Nadelson's "Aftermath" is the longest story though among the quickest to read. It is written in a clear style and is not a bad story. It deals with a married couple agreeing to a "trial separation," told through the point of view of the man. While it has some nice moments and interesting character relationships, it is too long and the protagonist is a little whiny to be sympathetic. This is followed by "Blind Spots" by Erica Johnson Debeljak, a story with some interesting ideas strung together with some dull writing. This is unfortunate because the concept here is interesting, about a boy who can only see peripherally, told through the point of view of his mother. The point of view weakens the story as it becomes about the mother and her own struggles and grief, victimizing her, rather than being about the boy himself. David Allan Cates's "The Rubber Boy" is the other weaker piece. It is a catalog of a man's life, asking why do I endure, which is followed a single event that gives him reason to endure. The last story, "Toward a Theory of Blindness" by Beth Aria Sloss, is uneven yet interesting at certain points.

This issue of Glimmer Train contains little variety. Most stories are in first person and most with unenlightened characters trying to philosophize about their place in the universe. Whether concerned about a sick child or a sick country, the bulk of the stories centre on a narrator attempting to come to grips with their place in the world or with what the universe has provided them, and each of them through some form of deus ex machina end up accepting that lot. In essence, notions of free will and independence are inherently dispelled, as characters learn to accept rather than make better, or different, the state of their selves or their immediate world. There is nothing challenging in the interpretations of the universe, nor of the self.

This issue features both an author interview and a short article. The interview in this issue is with author Will Allison, conducted by Andrew Scott. It is a fairly generic author interview, but a better read than many of the stories, and though I have never heard of Allison before reading the interview, I am curious about his novel and took note of it. One thing that bothered me about the interview is that, when quoting Allison on authors he read in college, the text reads "Nathaniel West," when his name is actually spelled Nathanael West. We are not told how the interview was conducted, oral or email, so I won't speculate as to who erred, but the editors really should have caught this blunder.

The essay is an all-too-brief account of Iranian author Yaghoub Yadali who was being persecuted for a novel he wrote about a couple involved in an extra-marital affair. The article is well written though wholly introductory.

I am uncertain as to the fate of my three remaining issues of Glimmer Train. They are still in their original plastic packaging so perhaps they will one day be worth more than the cover price. I was speculating on reading the first two stories of each issue, the photo captions and even the author interview, which I do like. The lack of free will in the Glimmer Train universe prevents me from over-speculating, because what I end up doing is likely predetermined. In the meantime each issue will look handsome on the bottom shelf of the little brown bookshelf beside my desk.

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